OUR CHANGING PARTY SCENE SIDEBAR LIMITING THE AMOUNT GUESTS DRINK
Informal cocktail parties and formal receptions. Brunches and banquets. Intimate dinner parties and large, all-night bashes. It seems to hold true for them all.
Parties around Boston have changed. Guest lists are being trimmed. Drinks are being watered down. Visitors are being scrutinized for a slurred word or an unsteady step. And, at some affairs, cots are being hauled out so that guests too inebriated to make the trip home safely may stay the night.
The lighthearted revelry of years past has dissipated. Today's frivolous function is a serious event. Drinking is out. Perrier is in. Getting drunk is out. Staying sober, healthy and out of jail is in. Hosts and hostesses this holiday season are facing up to new responsibilities, sobering up to the demands of social-host liability.
Recognized by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in August, social- host liability has clearly altered the way hosts and hostesses are approaching their holiday gatherings. The term refers to the idea that a person who is host to a private-home party is liable for the actions of an intoxicated guest once that guest has left the party.
In the August decision, the court ruled liability could be charged if a host who should have known his guest was drunk nevertheless permitted that guest to drive a car leading to an accident in which a third person was injured.
That ruling has forced party-givers to consider their roles more carefully, and their caution has, in many ways, changed the nature of entertaining and, in some instances, the festive tone of the party itself. In the end, they say, their affairs, for better or worse, just won't be what they once were.
While some say they have always felt an obligation to serve liquor responsibly and strongly support the court decision, others say that, although they serve alcoholic beverages judiciously at gatherings, they feel legal accountability to be an unwarranted burden.
"It's a horrible responsibility," says Linda Makepeace (she asked that her real name not be used), a prominent Wellesley hostess known for her large and lavish New Year's Eve parties.
"It sort of takes the luster off of having a really nice party . . . I resent it. I don't think I should have to be responsible for anyone over 21."
Some hosts now refuse to allow their teen-age children to throw any party at all for fear that a teen-age guest might consume alcohol surreptitiously on the premises. Some hosts are limiting the amount of hard liquor they supply for a party. One host gives extended parties in which guests are asked to stay the night and for brunch the next morning. Other hosts are sending notes with invitations, imploring guests to enjoy themselves, but to drink responsibly. Whether hosts agree or disagree with the social-host liability decision, they are fast developing enterprising ways of dealing with its inescapable reality.
Makepeace, for instance, says she finds the idea of warning notes to be in bad taste. "I would never do that. I think it's an insult. " Yet, she says, she does take other steps to "prevent losses."
To begin with, Makepeace, who used to throw parties for up to 200, has sheared her guest list substantially -- her reason being that she simply cannot, like a shepherd tending a flock, keep watch over 200 people and how much they have imbibed.
"I like to invite lots of people because I feel the more the merrier, but I just can't do that any more," she says.
Secondly, she says, while she has always served light drinks at her parties, she now asks the bartender to water down drinks even more, particularly later in the evening.
"That sounds like a terrible thing," she says. "Please don't use my name, but it's true. I don't serve very strong drinks."
And, finally, as additional insurance, she sends the bartender home at midnight.
Roberta and Frank Sugrue of Medfield are doing likewise.
Their bartenders are asked to stop serving drinks to anyone who has bobbed and weaved to the bar. Occasionally, their bartenders have exercised this authority. The Sugrues, too, have thought about limiting the size of their parties. And, when it seems a visitor, despite all precautions, has had too much, the Sugrues make every attempt to keep their guest from leaving.
"My husband has taken the keys away from some people, or made them stay over," says Roberta Sugrue.
But even such prudence didn't eliminate the couples' uneasiness when they were hosts at a high school graduation party for their daughter.
"It was very scary," says Roberta. "There are always those who go off into the woods to have a drink. We didn't have a problem, but it was a very big responsibility. We didn't realize it until that night. We took their keys away and put them in envelopes. We made them stay over. It was not fun. I'm sure the kids had fun, but it was a very big responsibility for us."
Bobby Albre, a Boston resident who entertains frequen tly, says her way of coping with social-host liability is more straightforward. If she even suspects a guest may become intoxicated, that person's name is slashed immediately from her guest list.
"If I think someone is going to get into trouble, I wouldn't invite them," says Albre. "And, if I run into a problem, I just wouldn't invite them back. As a hostess, I have enough to worry about without having to worry about what one of my guests is doing. I'm just not going to take on that added responsibility. If I have to set up a cot for a guest, I don't want them. If someone gets drunk at my house, I don't want them."
However, not all agree that Albre's solution is realistic.
"That's a little naive," responds Max Bleakie, a Beacon Hill resident who also throws frequent parties.
"I think every one of us at times has something to celebrate or something to commiserate and has too many. It's rare for my friends to be blind, staggering drunk, but the point when you can be impaired driving is just after a couple of drinks." Any attempt to judge which guest will become impaired sooner than another is simply fruitless, he believes.
According to Arthur F. Licata, member and legal adviser of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving state coordinating committee, and strong proponent of social-host liability, while hosts should continue to take as many precautions as possible in serving liquor at parties, they need not become distraught over the liability decision.
"Contrary to what the hysteria might suggest, they will be difficult cases to win because of the resistance of many people (the public and those who serve on juries)," he says."I think when the social-host decision came down, you had many people, especially the insurance companies, saying that now you're going to have millions of lawsuits, people are going to lose their homes . . . I just don't think that's going to happen. I don't think you're going to see an explosion of litigation on this issue."
Licata says the court has decided that for a social host to be held accountable: a host must serve alcohol to an obviously- intoxicated guest; the homeowner must serve the alcohol either by making liquor available to guests through an untended bar or through a bartender; and that the host must have a reasonable expectation that the guest is going to drive an automobile under the influence of alcohol. These factors must be evaluated by a jury. If a host is shown to have served liquor with care -- providing food for guests, tending bar, offering to drive a guest home or having a guest stay overnight, for example -- then that host has conformed to his duty and cannot be held accountable for his guest's actions. No case as yet has tested the court's decision, Licata says.
"Before our state court made this decision, you could never bring that issue before a jury; it wasn't a viable action. Now our state Supreme Court says, 'OK, you have a shot now.' My belief is that juries are going to be careful and very cautious about analyzing judgments in social- host cases," says Licata.
But hosts are taking no chances. And neither are guests.
Guests are finding they can have a good time at a party without having to drink, or at least drinking as much.
"I know my friends are starting to change their habits," says Licata. "Not because they want to, but because they have to."
"People are drinking less, no question," says Smoki Bacon, widely known as the consummate hostess in Boston's fashionable social circles. "This incredible thrust on news and television on drunk driving, I think, has indeed had its effect. I think my friends are drinking far more responsibly."
Bacon says that her liquor list for a party differs dramatically from what it might have been 25 years ago. Back then, she says, she might have ordered equal amounts of Scotch and bourbon, half that amount of gin, and two bottles of white wine for 60 people. Today, her liquor list for a party of the same size includes mostly white wine, perhaps as much as four gallons, with only small amounts of bourbon and Scotch. She says she notices the same phenomenon among her daughter's college-age friends. They seem to be light drinkers, too.
Max Bleakie, who is 38, says, "I think my parents are drinking less because they're older and people in my generation are drinking less because it doesn't have the social glamour."
Sugrue says that she has friends who drink, but turn down any party too far away to be traveled to by cab. And, more often, she hears people at parties say they don't drink at all any more.
Health-conscious baby-boomers, while not teetotalers, not only seem to be more aware of alcohol's dangers, but also wary of a new social stigma attached to the intoxicating substance. Hosts and guests alike are becoming more aware of their social responsibilities. Guests now realize that drinking and driving can hurt not only the stranger in the other car, but the friend who asked them over for an evening. Hosts are de-emphasizing alcohol at parties.
"I don't know if it's trendy," says Sugrue, "but it's smart.
Boston-area health professionals have several suggestions for hosts seeking to limit the amount guests drink.
According to Marsha Vannicelli, director of the Appleton Outpatient Clinic at McLean Hospital in Belmont and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, guests tend to drink most during the first few hours of a party when many are nervous about meeting others.
Vannicelli suggests that hosts lessen this early tension by playing a role in making people feel comfortable. She says hosts might also think about serving dinner earlier to prevent guests from filling up on alcohol.
Vannicelli also recommends that hosts provide abundant spreads of food for guests to nibble on, along with plenty of non-alcoholic beverages, such as juices, coffee and non-alcoholic wine.
"I'm not a very big drinker, and I'm always uncomfortable when I go to a party and find all they have is wine," she says. "Often, hosts don't think about having another beverage."
Toward the end of the evening, she suggests, hosts should stop serving drinks and serve coffee and dessert.
When a guest does become drunk, William Griffith, medical director at Edgehill Newport in Rhode Island, warns that hosts should not attempt to sober up a guest with coffee or a shower.
"It's far better for them to be at a point of somnolence, when you can be in a situation to keep them from driving home," he says.
Griffith says that if an intoxicated guest attempts to leave the premises by driving, hosts should be straightforward about not allowing the guest to drive.
'You don't give the person who is intoxicated a lot of choice," he says. "If you take the direct approach of 'I'm not going to let you drive,' that would work far better. They don't perceive themselves to be impaired, so it's incumbent upon those who can perceive the person is drunk not to let that person drive. What we tell them is we're going to call the police if they try to leave."
Michael FitzGerald, director of the Day Treatment Program at Family Services of Greater Boston, says honesty is the best way to convince a guest he is drunk.
"You have to be honest with people and just tell them. Most people are afraid. I don't believe in letting friends drive who have had too much to drink."
If an oral warning does not work, a host must physically take a guest's keys.
While one professional suggested giving a guest insistent on driving more alcohol until that guest is totally incapacitated, others say this approach can be dangerous because one never knows whether more alcohol will make a guest pass out or simply become more bellicose.
Finally, experts recommend that guests consider bringing to a party a designated driver, a person who agrees not to drink for the evening, so that he or she is able to drive home.